CHICAGO – Miguel Montero delivered one memorable swing, Javier Baez stole home with a daring dash down the line and Jon Lester turned in another steady performance.
Business as usual this year for the Chicago Cubs, who are off and running in the NL Championship Series.
Montero snapped an eighth-inning tie with the third pinch-hit grand slam in post-season history, and Chicago beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 8-4 in Game 1 on Saturday night, moving the Cubs a step closer to their first pennant in 71 years.
Game 2 is Sunday night, with the Dodgers once again in need of a clutch performance from ace Clayton Kershaw. Major league ERA leader Kyle Hendricks pitches for the Cubs, chasing their first World Series title since 1908.
Lester pitched six effective innings, and Dexter Fowler homered after making two diving catches in centre field — breaking his belt on the second grab. Left fielder Ben Zobrist threw out Adrian Gonzalez at the plate, helping Chicago to its first NLCS win in 13 years.
The Cubs were swept in four games by the New York Mets in last year’s NLCS. Lester & Co. are back again and already in better shape following a crazy eighth inning.
In the top half, Gonzalez tied it 3-all with a two-out, two-run single off Aroldis Chapman.
Zobrist hit a leadoff double in the bottom of the eighth before pinch-hitter Chris Coghlan was intentionally walked with runners at first and second and two outs, bringing up Chapman’s spot in the batting order.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon sent up Montero, who drove an 0-2 slider from loser Joe Blanton halfway up the right-field bleachers for his first hit of the playoffs. The crowd of 42,376 at Wrigley Field roared as Montero rounded the bases and kept cheering until the veteran catcher popped out of the dugout for a curtain call.
“I never even thought I was going to hit at that point,” Montero said. “To be honest, I thought Maddon put me out there just to bring the lefty and get (Willson) Contreras to pinch-hit for me, and they didn’t bring the lefty for Contreras.”
Fowler homered on the next pitch as the Cubs rebounded quickly from a shaky bullpen performance. Hector Rondon allowed Andrew Toles’ RBI double in the ninth before Chase Utley lined into a game-ending double play.
Chapman retired Yasmani Grandal on an inning-ending groundout and was credited with the win.
Lester and Baez helped Chicago to a 3-1 lead after seven. But the Dodgers rallied the eighth, when Maddon brought in Chapman with the bases loaded and no outs.
The lefty struck out Corey Seager and Yasiel Puig before Gonzalez lined a 102 mph fastball back up the middle. A pumped-up Gonzalez celebrated at first base after delivering Los Angeles’ first hit in 12 at-bats with the bases loaded in the playoffs.
But everything changed in the bottom half, leaving both managers to answer for several difficult decisions. Lester was replaced by a pinch hitter after just 77 pitches, and the intentional walk to Coghlan put the go-ahead run at third.
Andre Ethier had a pinch-hit homer for Los Angeles, helped by a strong wind going out to left and left-centre on a warm night at Wrigley Field. Kenta Maeda lasted just four innings in his fourth straight shaky outing dating to the regular season.
The last time Kershaw was on the mound, he got two outs for the save in Los Angeles’ clinching Game 5 win at Washington on Thursday night. The taxing final victory over the Nationals left Roberts with few options for the NLCS opener, and the Cubs jumped on Maeda for three runs in the first two innings.
Kris Bryant drove in Fowler with an RBI double in the first. Baez, one of the breakout stars of this year’s post-season, added his own run-scoring double in the second, on a blooper into centre over a drawn-in infield.
Baez was on third with one out when he broke for the plate with Lester squaring to bunt. Lester was unable to get the bunt down, but catcher Carlos Ruiz threw to third baseman Justin Turner, and Baez broke for the plate. He slid in safely before Ruiz could get the tag on him.
Baez became the second player to steal home for the Cubs in a post-season game, joining Jimmy Slagle in Game 4 of the 1907 World Series, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Dodgers: Kershaw pitched in all three Dodgers wins during the Division Series, including a two-out save in the decisive Game 5. The three-time Cy Young Award winner is 3-6 with a 4.79 ERA in 16 playoff appearances, including 12 starts.
Cubs: Hendricks, who went 16-8 with a 2.13 ERA this season, makes his fourth career playoff start. He left his Division Series start against San Francisco after taking a line drive off his right forearm.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
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